27 January 2016
Ridiculusmus take the ridiculous to extremes in their latest piece ‘Give Me Your Love’. Following the story of a soldier with post-traumatic stress disorder back from the Iraq War, the play asks how does society support those who’ve been pushed to the darkest corners of existence. Review by Colin Hambrook.
As the performance opens we are thrown into Zach’s prison – a stark room that resembles how you might imagine a cell in the Guantanamo Bay detention camp.
We are aware of the shit-scraped lino, a huge door studded with locks, bolts and latches, the pipes from a disinterred sink unit, and sat prominently on the stage, a large bedraggled cardboard box.
But this isn’t a military prison, it’s Zach’s home. He’s back in South Wales with his family having been discharged from the army. He has locked himself in his room and he can’t find a way out of his box. Even getting from one side of the room to the other is virtually impossible, such is the degree of the distress Zach is experiencing.
As the play begins we hear his wife Carol, another disembodied voice from off-stage, attempting to empathise with her distraught husband. He complains of feeling constrained, of his limbs losing all feeling. She tries to coax him out of his box.
Banned from entering the room, she suggests she’ll get in a box placed upside-down by the door, hoping that by symbiosis he’ll follow her actions and being upside-down, relieve himself of the cramps.
This ability to convey disabling anguish with a form of comedy that enhances compassion is Give Me Your Love’s main strength. It is a theatre of gesture. The play uses devices such as the slight movement of fingers tapping a beat to a penny whistle; a series of pained attempts to do physically difficult things from confined, locked out spaces.
Moments arise that lift and stretch the drama beyond the tight skin of cardboard. At one point Zach moves across the threshold of the stage and places himself, from inside his box onto the front seat of the auditorium. His hand is squeezed out of a hole in the box and is attempting to reach out, moving ever closer to an audience member desperately trying to avoid contact, sat just behind him.
Give Me Your Love owes much to the dark comedy of Samuel Beckett’s absurdist dramas. We are in a hopeless universe where nothing can ever make sense, much like Vladimir and Estragon’s expectations for redemption in Waiting for Godot. And, as in Not I, which features a solitary mouth, this is a faceless universe.
At most, we see the shape of a human being, without upper limbs and the head represented by this grotesque box. However, there is less metaphor and more specificity than Beckett gives us in his comedies and therein lies the problem the play presents.
As audience we are privy to the workings of a mind that has lost all perspective. Zach is haunted by the horrors of war: “You believe I’ve got it? Shell shock? Post-traumatic stress disorder?” he plaintively asks his wife, as if sitting in a box in an empty shit-stained room was ordinary everyday behaviour.
But neither do we know what Zach is or isn’t capable of. Carol suggests that he take the children to the beach for ice cream. And in several scenes he talks about music and going to band practice, with mates.
It’s difficult to imagine that someone in Carol’s position would have resisted any intervention from mental health professionals. We are not given enough detail to know how much capacity Zach has for a loving relationship with his family, or for friendship.
There is a contradiction between the kind of person Zach can be, and the person we see on stage. Not that the contradiction is a problem, but to get inside the box with Zach and understand him fully we need more of a bridge between the ‘box’ and everyday experience.
Zach talks about experiments his mate Leuan has told him of that are being trialled in Cardiff. They involve using MDMA – otherwise known as Ecstasy – being used as a form of therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Much to Carol’s disgust, Leuan arrives to give Zach the drug, hoping to give his friend an experience that will bring him out of himself. We hold on to our seats praying that it will ease the trauma, but what ensues leaves us with no real idea as to whether MDMA has actually compounded his dreadful mental state.
Give Me Your Love is the second of Ridiculusmus’ three interventions of theatre-making which attempt to cast new light on innovative approaches to understanding mental health issues.
The first, The Eradication of Schizophrenia in Western Lapland (see here for DAO's review) did much to elucidate R.D. Laing’s research into consciousness as a shared rather than insular entity; and mental illness not as a biological state located in an individual, but as an effect of negative group interaction being played out in the actions of an individual.
The play highlighted how those theories have been used to positive effect in the NHS in areas of Finland in the last 25 years.
The dialogue between Zach and Leuan talking about ways they should use MDMA in Give Me Your Love is reminiscent of R.D. Laing’s theories of using breakdown as a form of breakthrough. Laing also famously used psychedelic drugs as a catalyst for ‘facing the fear’.
Neither play by Ridiculusmus reaches a resolution, which overall makes both experiences much more like the realities of life, especially a life lived at the kinds of difficult extremes of someone like Zach, trying to make sense of irrational feelings.
What mostly rings true from Give Me Your Love is the very real need for emphasis on empathy, not just from professionals but from society as a whole; the invisibility of individuals in Zach’s position who are generally fed with the chemical cosh and put out of mind; and, by implication, the need for psychiatry’s medical model stranglehold on ‘treatment’ to be overhauled.
Give Me Your Love premiered at Arts House, Melbourne in November 2015 and is in London for a three-week run at Battersea Arts Centre until the 30th January 2016. This will be followed by performances at The Lyric Theatre, Bridport on 3rd February and The Gulbenkian, Canterbury on 5th February, both with post show discussions.